Even when she’s not fresh from a rejuvenating medical procedure, Jepsen is simultaneously placid and upbeat, particularly for a woman on the verge of breaking into a multibillion-dollar industry. She meets the constant demands for her time matter-of-factly, without any apparent stress, and for someone who spends so much of her time in front of conference crowds, she’s surprisingly un-self-conscious. She once filmed a series of Web videos on her work while wearing a pirate-like eye patch to cover a parasitic infection. And today she seems perfectly comfortable being interviewed in her hospital gown.
Her parents struggled financially—her father repaired car engines until his business burned down, and then ran for political office and lost—so they pushed the teenage Jepsen in a pragmatic direction. “I didn’t want to be an electrical engineer,” she says. “But I did want to go to college. And they said they’d help me pay for it if I’d major in electrical engineering.”
During her freshman year at Brown University, she figured out a way to meld science and art: In a physics class, she learned how to create holograms. “You make this emulsion, spread it on glass, and at the end of this whole complicated process, you have this magical 3-D thing,” she says. “I was hooked.”
She decided to spend her life making holograms. She went on to earn a master’s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, where she helped develop a groundbreaking 3-D video system (which, incidentally, earned a mention in this magazine in 1991). Then she took her artistic engineering around the world. Sometimes she put it to practical ends, as when she helped the Australian government fix the security hologram on their dollar bill. Other times, it was purely art, as when she splashed a 66-foot hologram of Roman baths across an entire city block in Cologne, Germany. In the ’90s, she even came up with the idea of using solar-mirror arrays in California to project a movie onto the moon (a plan she later shelved after deciding that it would be culturally disastrous to deface something revered by many religions).
While in Germany in her mid-20s, she began to suffer mysterious health problems: scrapes that didn’t heal, kidney ailments usually contracted only by AIDS patients. As a freelance art-holographer, she lacked health insurance, so she felt she had to switch to steadier work. She went back to Brown to get a Ph.D. in optics, thinking an advanced degree might help her compete in the male-dominated electronics industry. Partway through her studies, though, she found herself nearly incapacitated. “I was going blind, and I was in a wheelchair,” she says. “I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life living with my parents.” Finally, doctors unearthed a hormone-wrecking mass on her pituitary gland—this after years of telling her that her illness was all in her head. “In fact, it was,” she says. “They sucked it out of my nose.”
Removing part of her pituitary gave Jepsen back her health. It also gave her a strict lifelong course of pills, needed to replace the lost gland’s hormones, and a strong sense of urgency. “If I don’t take my pills every 12 hours, I can die,” she says. “So how do I want to use my time?”single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.